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Being ‘woke’ and the ‘right to listen’

"Listening is the first act of leadership."

“Woke.” The expression “staying woke” may be trending lately on social media, but it has been long used as an African American slang term which refers to a continuing awareness of specific issues such as racial and social justice. Its contemporary usage, though, has been expanded to include other social liberal causes such as feminism, LGBT rights and even cultural appropriateness.

The word “woke” loosely translates in Filipino as “mulat” which literally means aware, or conscious – providing the concept an even more Filipino flavor. “Mulat” is more than just being well-informed or up-to-date, it is a call to action to be more involved about prevailing societal realities

“Woke” or “mulat” is a precise way to describe today’s younger generation. Today’s youth are not afraid to ask not only “what” – but are even more forthcoming to ask, “why.” In fact, as compared to generations before them, they are not hesitant to express their personal views. They are even articulate enough to convince others to share their opinions.

A cursory analysis of social media would show how the young have become more and more knowledgeable and opinionated on current issues, to a point that it has significantly altered social behavior by pressuring their peers, and even the adults to also choose a personal stance on many of these issues, even if otherwise they would not. With their technological savvy, the youth have also effectively used online platforms to freely express their ideas to an even wider audience.

But this seeming obsession about being “woke” or “mulat” has come with its own consequences, including the propensity to be intolerant or even dismissive of opposing opinions. They have become even critical of those who prefer to be silent or unquestioning about particular issues, or those who take time to be more discerning or introspective as the realities around them continue to shift and evolve.

That explains why in many instances, conversations and debates on social media turn to be angry, hurtful and sometimes disrespectful.

This begs the question: “Is being ‘woke’ entirely good for our democracy?”

The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once taught: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” In a time when people are expected to be “woke” and are often lauded for freely speaking their mind – the truth is, we have lost appreciation for the value of silence, and the virtue of introspection. Gone were the days when one would spend more time listening, silently and at length, to what people had to say – especially when what it would take now is a single click on a mouse, or a dozen taps on the keyboard. It is worth asking whether, in a time when we are constantly insisting on our freedoms – of free speech, conscience and belief – we have denied as much the right of others to listen.

In a society where people associate their voice with freedom, and talking with power, it seems strange to defend one’s right to listen. But not until one is shunned for choosing to be discerning or to say the least, silent or to think differently about a particular issue. The sad reality is that today’s “woke” generation are not too fond of people who prefer to “stay silent” – and worst, they become the opposite of the very freedoms that serve as their battle cry.

What today’s “woke” generation has missed out is understanding that listening can be a powerful political act. To listen is to act, and clearly it takes effort and requires a conscious choice. Listening is more than just passive reception or acceptance of ideas, it requires the active willingness to engage in rational discourse. In fact, ask anyone who has been in a heated debate or argument with others and still have to live in the same house or work at the same company with them – listening can be a demanding act, and oftentimes it is easier not to listen. We can hear, but choose not to listen. We can pretend to listen, but be too focused on how to retaliate or counter another’s argument.

This is what the “woke” generation has to learn more. As much as one is accorded the freedom of speech, another is entitled a freedom to listen. Our youth have to understand that as important as one’s duty to speak, is the duty to listen. It always pays to be prudent and discerning, to talk less and listen more. People learn to be more proactive, strategic and intuitive, not by talking, but by listening. But the worst consequence of failing to listen is missing out our ability for introspection, to reflect on what and why things happened, and to understand not only what was said and what was said differently, but more importantly what was left unsaid.

It is not surprising that today’s “woke” generation appear to focus more on the volume than the content of their rhetoric. They appear to be charged on dominating conversation, rushing to speak what is in their mind, without realizing the value of everything that can be gleaned from the minds of others. They seem to think that being heard is more important than hearing. They have forgotten that before one could seek to be understood, one must seek to understand. That what is far more important in political discourse is not only to send the message, but to engage others.

The truth is that the more enriching discourse takes place within a conversation, and not through a lecture or a monologue. Thus, with the advances in communications technology, the important challenge is to find new and better ways to listen. Instead of mindlessly pushing out tweets and posts on social media, it is good to ask questions and elicit feedback. It is important to put as much attention and learn something new on what is being said, rather than simply just having one’s opinions validated. If one desires to be listened to, the best way is always to take the step of listening first. Even in everyday conversations, it is listening that always brings out the basics of good human interaction: Empathy, the ability to let people know they are important to you and that what they say is of interest.

It comes as no surprise therefore why our country, despite our seeming obsession about our freedom to speak and think freely, has long belabored about the quality of our national discourse, whether online or on broadcast media, whether in our homes and in our halls of power. Our political discourse, for example, has been heavily partisan and critical, and less affirming and inspiring. As a result, public confidence in our political institutions have wavered, the sphere of influence of our political leaders becoming more and more limited – and our sense of a shared national destiny, almost non-existent.

We live in an information cluttered world. Thus, despite our apparent proficiency in being “woke,” in having ourselves heard, we have become deaf to that chance to learn what comes with listening – that is, to know the story behind the message, and understand the opportunity beyond the issue. More than just being heard, it is listening that can affect the present and influence the future. The more important decisions in history were accomplished not only by those who were able to convince others by their speech, but those who cared to actively listen to dissenting ideas and contradicting thoughts.

It is important to be reminded that far from a sign of weakness, listening is the first act of leadership. Wanting to be heard sees only opposition. But listening opens you to the possibilities and opportunities to grow and be better.

Topics: Jude Acidre , Woke , racial , social justice
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